For anyone that loves Big Little Lies, Mean Girls, and Desperate Housewives, May Cobb’s upcoming suspense novel The Hunting Wives is our newest obsession, as it’s being hailed as a Desperate Housewives set in Texas. In the novel, out May 18, 2021, protagonist Sophie O’Neill moves from her big-city life in Chicago to a small town in east Texas with her husband and young son. After settling down, she realizes her life is now quiet and boring, and she looks for a little more excitement. Sophie meets Margot Banks, who is a part of an elite clique known as the Hunting Wives. She immediately feels drawn toward Margot and her mysterious world full of late-night adventures and reckless partying. As Sophie’s involvement intensifies, she starts slipping away from her family as she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation, and loses control over her own life.
Based in Austin, Texas, May Cobb is a novelist and freelance writer. Back in 2015, she won the Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest. Her debut novel Big Woods (2018) was awarded as an Independent Publisher Book Award for Suspense/Thriller. Her writing has also been featured in Austin Monthly and the online edition of Jazz Times. The Hunting Wives comes out May 18, 2021, which I know feels like it’s a million lightyears away—but not to worry, because Betches readers can read an exclusive excerpt below. Preorder The Hunting Wives here.
(Brief setup: This takes place after Sophie’s first time skeet shooting with the Hunting Wives group and their Regina-George-esque leader, Margot, wants to keep the party going.)
Back inside, the lake house feels glaring after the darkness of the trail. Margot sinks the wine into a silver ice bucket and twists the bottle around, chilling it. Callie fetches wineglasses from the cabinet, and fills each glass to the brim.
We toast and sip, but I only take the smallest of sips so I can safely drive home. Margot tosses back half her glass and sets it on the bar.
“So…who wants to go hunting?”
“Always,” Callie says, winding a lock of coarse hair around her finger.
“I’m in!” Tina trills, rocking back and forth on her feet, her coal-black eyes squinting in a smile.
“Where?” Jill asks, demure, her face half-hidden behind her huge wineglass.
“I was thinking Rusty’s,” Margot says.
Jill sets her glass down, crosses her arms.
“Oh, please, Jilly! It’s been forever. Don’t pout. I’ll behave, I promise.” Margot goes over to Jill, puts her arm around her. There’s a perceptible shift in Jill’s demeanor, a small succumbing to Margot’s power.
I have no idea what they’re talking about, but suddenly they’re all looking at me. I take another small sip of wine, swish it around in my mouth.
“Who wants to tell her the rules?” Margot asks, her hip cocked against Jill’s, her exquisitely-shaped eyebrows hiked in a question mark.
“I will,” Callie says. This is the first time she’s addressed me directly, and there’s a trace of a sneer in her expression.
“Rules about what?” I ask, nervously giggling, clasping my wine glass.
“Oh, please,” Callie rolls her eyes. “Don’t act like you’re not bored in your marriage.”
“Maybe she’s not,” Margot says, her voice playful. “Her husband’s a hottie.”
The flush of alcohol and Margot’s hooded eyes on me make my face flame.
“I think everyone here is a little bored, except for Jill,” Callie says.
“Yeah, Jilly, what did Amazon bring you this week? Do tell.” Margot’s unwrapped herself from Jill and crosses over the bar to refresh her wine. “I want to hear all about your latest toy.”
I catch myself gawking at Jill and quickly look away before she notices.
“Ooooh, a new toy,” Callie says. “What role is Tom going to play? Will he be the police officer this time or the victim?” Callie snickers.
“You only wish you still had sex with your husband,” Jill fires back.
For some reason, Callie answers to me, “He chases me around the house, but I’m over it.”
She stretches her long legs across the length of the sofa, takes another mouthful of wine.
“So anyway, we’re all a little bored and have to let it out somehow.”
“Monogamy is so…monogamous,” Margot chimes.
The cold blast from the air conditioning has fogged up the windows, so I can’t see the lake anymore behind Callie, only the clouds of condensation frosting the glass.
My stomach registers a red-hot signal of danger; I don’t know how I feel about all this. Graham and I have never been anything but monogamous and I’m certainly not bored with him. Am I? I’m just bored, I think. But if that’s the case, why am I so drawn to Margot and why can’t I get her out of my head? If I’m honest, there’s part of me that, despite the sense of alarm that looms in the air, likes listening to them. It excites me. Makes me feel alive. Maybe the most alive I’ve felt since moving back. No, not maybe. Definitely.
“So. The rules.” Callie sits up now, rests her elbows on her knees. “There’s only two, really. We only use our first names. And, we don’t go all the way.”
I nod dumbly as if being read the instructions to a board game.
“So, you’re in,” Callie says matter-of-factly.
Again, that pinprick of danger at the back of my neck. And before I have a chance to respond, Margot fishes a set of keys off the wooden coffee table, stashes her Louis Vuitton clutch under her arm, and heads for the front door.
“I’m driving. Everyone load up,” she says and everyone rises and trails her to the entryway.
I take out my phone and check the time. 8:45. I should go home; I know I should. I certainly don’t want to get trapped all night by riding in Margot’s car. But then, I don’t want them to think I’m a scaredy-cat, either.
“I’ll follow in my own car,” I hear myself saying. My voice squeaks out of high-pitched and thin.
Margot freezes, turns around, and frowns at me.
“Early day tomorrow,” I say, casting my eyes toward the floor.
She twists back around and steps out the open door. “Suit yourself.” The others trickle out behind her. I follow.
Everyone is weaving towards Margot’s Mercedes but Tina spins around.
“I’ll ride with Sophie! In case she gets lost.”
Before Tina climbs in the Highlander, I dust a constellation of Cheerios off her seat. How Jack manages to scatter them everywhere, I’ll never understand. Tina’s perfume, powdery and floral, fills the cabin and she’s so buoyant, she seems to spring into the seat next to me.
Her husband, Bill, she tells me with a lick of pride, lifting her voice, is a home-builder. One of the biggest contractors in Mapleton. They live in a sparkling new development north of town. I’ve driven by and it’s all castle-like homes with spires and arched windows.
As we wind through the lake roads, tracking the red eyes of Margot’s taillights, I’m struck by how utterly dark it is out here and I notice, as we approach the country highway, that Margot is turning away from town, not toward it.
“So, what’s Rusty’s?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s a little honky-tonk on the outskirts of town. Margot likes to pick out-of-way spots. For obvious reasons.” She flicks down the mirror on the visor and applies a fresh coat of pink lipstick. “We don’t go much, though.”
“Hunting or to Rusty’s?”
She scrunches her curls with her fingers, studies her hair in the mirror.
“I was talking about Rusty’s specifically, but we don’t go hunting that often either. Maybe twice a month. But sometimes more. Depends on Margot’s mood,” she adds, snapping the mirror shut and darkening the interior of the car. “Margot’s appetite for men is insatiable. You’ll see.”
I instantly like and feel comfortable with her but chew my bottom lip as I ask the next question. “So, do you, you know,” I’m fumbling, can’t spit the words out.
“What? Cheat on my husband?” she asks, her voice bright and cavernous. “No. I mean, I kissed another guy once, the first time I went out with them, actually, but I hated myself for it. Bill and I are high school sweethearts. I can’t imagine being with anyone else. So, no. I’m just here to watch the train wreck.” She rubs her hands together in excitement.
The highway is empty but well-lit. Giant trees surf past us, cut by the strobe of fluorescent streetlights.
“Anyway, Margot’s in some kind of constant war with her husband, a who can one-up each other battle. Have you ever seen him?”
I shake my head no, though of course, I’ve seen him on Facebook. Just never in person. Those scorching eyes, his bronzed complexion.
“Well, he’s gorgeous. I mean, dead hot. But Jed cheated on her once in such a stupidly-typical way, with his secretary. Got caught, too, in a stupidly-typical way: sloppy texting. Margot paid the poor girl a visit to her apartment and ran her out of town. This was three years ago, but Margot does everything she can to punish him still,” she snorts, shakes her head. “She keeps him under lock and key. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t stepped out of line since, but Margot surely has.”
Tina’s fingers dance over the screen of my satellite radio. “Oooh, I love this song, mind if I turn it up?”
It’s “Brass Monkey” by the Beastie Boys and after she cranks the volume, she lowers her window and warm night air oozes through the car.
“Nights like these,” she shouts over the music, “I feel like I’m eighteen again!”
I roll my window down, too, and we both dance in our seats to the music.
As the song ends, I realize we’ve lost sight of Margot. I turn down the volume.
“Ummm, I don’t see them anymore.”
“No sweat, we’re almost there, just one last turn.”
I roll my window up, smooth my hair down, re-adjust my bra.
“So, what’s Callie’s story?”
Tina pauses for a second, seeming to consider as she fingers the silver hoop dangling from her ear. “She doesn’t like anyone who Margot might like. If you’re getting chilly vibes from her, that’s why. I think it was a full six months before she even acknowledged me. Just ignore her.”
We’re approaching a light. Tina waves for me to turn left. We head down a two-lane road.
“She’s all Single-White Female with Margot. Lives on the opposite end of the street from her, and drives the same make and model car. She wants to be her; she’s a bit obsessed with her. Her husband Trip is just a big oaf with a lot of family money. Fishes all the time. Manages the family finances. Could pass for okay-looking, though, if he dropped some weight.”
(I’ve seen him, too, on Facebook. Sort of a heavy, pasty Ben Affleck.)
I see the lights of the bar flickering in the distance. I slow the car and pull into the gravel parking lot.
“Callie and Margot went away together senior year of high school. Left Mapleton and went to that chi-chi boarding school in Dallas called Hockaday. Jill told me once that there were rumors that they were “together” while they were away. Not sure if there were ever a thing between them but Callie sure acts like it.”
I’ve read a lot of thrillers, and let me tell you, after a certain point it feels like if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Often times, I feel like, for whatever reason, every single author writing a mystery in the same year uses the same twist (the narrator suffered from amnesia all along, two sisters switch places). It’s like, do they all meet at a convention beforehand and discuss the twist of the year? That said, it’s rare that a thriller surprises me. Yeah, I’m that person who knows who the perp is within 15 minutes of a Law & Order: SVU episode. So when I picked up Don’t Look For Me, the buzzy new suspenseful novel by Wendy Walker out September 15, I wasn’t expecting much. But let me say that I was taken aback by at least one of the curveballs in the novel, and I definitely didn’t predict who did it. (Hey, you can’t win ’em all.)
Wendy Walker is the bestselling author of All is Not Forgotten, Emma In the Night, and The Night Before, with rights sold in 23 foreign languages as well as options in film and television. In her latest thriller, Don’t Look For Me, a mom with a past that’s been weighing on her is trapped in a storm in a small town, when she considers running away from it all. Then, she goes missing. The police are convinced she ran away, but her daughter is not so sure, and is determined to find the truth at any cost. Betches readers can get an exclusive first look at the first chapter of Don’t Look For Me, and be sure to pre-order it before its release on September 15.
The sky grows dark as I drive.
I tell myself to concentrate, to focus on the two narrow lanes of smooth, black asphalt and the double yellow lines that divide them.
The road feels like a tunnel, carved between walls of brown cornfields which flank the road on both sides and go on as far as the eye can see.
Darkness now hovers above and below, and from side to side. It’s everywhere.
I hear the woman on the radio talk of the storm, but she is muted by thoughts that will not relent as the events of this terrible day unravel in my mind.
This stretch of Route 7 passes through an endless chain of small New England towns—not the quaint villages farther south, but the old industrial hubs that have been left to decay.
Neglected farmland, dilapidated houses, abandoned factories—they stand like tombstones. I wonder where people live. Where they buy groceries. Where they work and go out to dinner. Why they don’t leave.
The unease causes my shoulders to rise and my back to straighten. It’s the same every time I pass through. These towns will haunt me well into the night.
There’s a gas station up ahead. The Gas n’ Go. It sits at the intersection of Route 7 and an eerie road that leads to the heart of one of these towns. I have never been down that road, and I don’t ever intend to. Still, this seems to be the spot where outsiders find themselves in need of gas as they journey from southern Connecticut into western Massachusetts. There must be half a dozen boarding schools and small colleges which are accessed from Route 7. Sometimes I recognize cars, even faces, when I have to stop.
And I will have to stop today. The gas light has been on for miles now.
After the Gas n’ Go, it’s two hours to my home at the southern end of the state. I have already passed the green welcome sign. Welcome to Connecticut.
It will be just after nine. My husband, John, will likely be out. At the gym. At work. Having drinks with a friend. My daughter, Nicole, will also be out somewhere. Anywhere that’s not near me. She just turned twenty-one so she has options now. Options that keep me up at night, watching the clock. Listening for the door.
The dogs will bark and jump on my coat. They’ll only want food. They save their affection for my husband. He was the one who brought them home after Annie died, so they’ve been his dogs more than mine.
The house will smell like Fantastik and lavender dryer sheets because it’s Thursday, and on Thursday the cleaners come. I wonder if they’ll remember to clear the ashes from the fireplace in our bedroom. It’s late October and cold enough for a fire. John likes to sit in bed with the fire burning while he watches television. He had one going last night. He was asleep by the time I made it up the stairs, though now I remember that the fire had a fresh log. Conclusions are quick to follow and one hand now covers my gaping mouth.
Am I too sensitive? Am I just being too me, too Molly? I hear these thoughts with John’s voice. Stop being so Molly. He has come to use my name as an adjective that allows him to dismiss me. But, no—I’m not wrong about the log on the fire. He was pretending to be asleep.
The day unravels and I can’t stop my thoughts.
My son, Evan, attends one of the boarding schools off this road. He was recruited as a freshman to play football. He’s a junior now, and a starting lineman this season. I make this trip every other Thursday to watch his home games. The season is half over and they are leading the ranks. They may win the entire league this year.
The drive is four hours each way. John tells me I’m crazy to make the trip twice a month. He tells me Evan doesn’t care. Nicole has harsher words for me. She tells me Evan doesn’t want me there. That I embarrass him by going. That he’s not a little boy anymore and he doesn’t need his mommy watching him play.
He has changed. She’s right about that. He knows the power he has on the field. I hadn’t seen it before today. It was in his stance, his walk. It was in his eyes.
And it was in his cruelty. I wonder when that began. If it’s new. Or only new that I can see it.
I waited for him outside the field house where the team enters the locker room. I picture him now, as the day plays out again, slowly, painfully.
How he walked with his friends, the enormous bag hanging over his shoulder, high-tops unlaced, baseball hat turned backward, and a mischievous smile that probably had something to do with talk about a girl.
In that moment, before his eyes caught sight of me and his face changed, I felt my heart fill with pride.
These thoughts come, and like the log on the fire, they don’t go. My boy, my sweet Evan, the easy middle child, walking like he owned the world. A smile pulled clear across my face as I waited for his eyes to turn and see me at the door.
And they did turn. And they did see.
And then they widened and looked away. He grew closer, and still, they did not return to me. He positioned himself between two of his friends and passed through the door, leaving me in awe of his dismissiveness.
It is just now, one hundred and eleven miles later, that I feel the bite of it.
My vision blurs. I wipe away tears. Christ, I hear John. Stop being so Molly! He’s a teenager.
But the thought won’t leave, this image of his back turned as he walked into the building.
I look up at the dark clouds stirring in the sky and see the sign for the Gas n’ Go sitting atop a giant pole. The storm is a hurricane. I am driving right into its path.
John said this was another reason I shouldn’t make the trip today. The school could cancel the game if the storm got too close, and even if they didn’t, I would surely run into it on the way home.
The storm, Evan not caring.
And Annie. He stopped short of saying it, but the words lingered between us.
Today is the anniversary of her death. Five years ago, on this day, we lost our youngest child. She was nine years old.
No. I will not think of Annie. I will not go backward. I will go forward.
Put one foot in front of the other.
I learned this in grief counseling. I used to be a middle school science teacher, where the focus is on learning to analyze problems by breaking them down into pieces and forming hypotheses—so I studied the grief this way. Objectively. Clinically. We are not wired to witness the death of a child. To endure it. To survive it. But like every other human defect, we have used science to outsmart our own biology. We can take a brain that is shredded ear to ear and we can put it back together with mantras like this one. Mantras that have been tested in clinical trials. Vetted in peer articles and TED Talks and now appear in self-help books.
You just put one foot in front of the other, Molly. Every day, just one more step.
Had I not had other children to care for, I would not have been able to take these steps. I would have died. Let myself die. Found a way to die. The pain was not survivable. And yet I survived.
But the day continues to unravel, back now, to the morning.
Nicole was just coming in from one of her nights. I don’t know where she slept. Her skin has gone pale, her hair long and unruly. She’s become lean from running. She runs for miles and miles. She runs until she is numb, head to toe. Inside and out. Then she sleeps all day. Stays out all night. She is a lean, fierce, unruly warrior. And yet the pain still gets inside her.
Where have you been all night? I asked. The usual exchange followed, about how this was none of my business … but it was my business because she’s living in my house and what about her GED class and trying to dig herself out of this hole … but it’s my fault she’s in the hole; she’s in the hole because of Annie and her grief and because not everyone can just get over it … but when is she going to stop using her sister’s death as an excuse for getting expelled from her private school senior year, never going back?
She shrugged, looked me straight in the eye. When did she become like this? This soldier, ready to fight off anyone who comes too close?
What about you? When are you going back to work? she asked.
She likes to remind me that I, too, stopped living—breathing, yes, but not really living.
I had no response to my daughter this morning. I had no response to my son this afternoon.
I didn’t even see Evan after the game. I waited by the door but he must have gone out a different way. I almost marched straight to his dorm to tell him what I thought of his behavior. To do what a mother does when she knows she’s right and when her child needs to learn a lesson.
The sign for the Gas n’ Go grows closer, the clouds darker as these thoughts come. I didn’t find him. I didn’t do what I now think a mother should have done. A good mother.
Suddenly, I know why.
The car slows. I step on the gas, but it doesn’t respond.
I am not a good mother.
I can’t hold them back now, the thoughts of my dead child. Annie. Not that they ever really leave me. They are always lurking, hiding, wearing disguises so I don’t see them as they sneak up.
I steer to the shoulder. The wheel is stiff. The car is dead. When it stops, I try the ignition, but it won’t turn over.
I see the message on the dashboard. I have run out of gas.
How long has the light been on? I have been preoccupied by this day. By these thoughts. John was right. I should not have made this trip. Not today.
I look down Route 7 and see the entrance for the station. It can’t be more than thirty feet. The wind whips hard, rocking the car. I can see the rain coming on an army of clouds. A blanket closing over the sky. I can’t tell how far away they are. How much time I have.
Thoughts exploding. Heart pounding. What have I done?
Now comes the thought about the fire last night. We have four fireplaces in our house, all of them wood burning. I have been making fires and stoking fires since we moved there twelve years ago. I know what a log looks like when it’s just been placed on top of the flames.
I have no umbrella, just a flimsy jacket. I put it on anyway. I reach for my purse and tuck it inside. It’s only thirty feet.
I open the door, get out, close it behind me. And I run, clutching the purse. I run into the wind which is more powerful than I imagined.
I run and think about that log which had just been put there—last night—on the fire. John wasn’t asleep. John was pretending to be asleep so he wouldn’t have to see me, even just long enough to say good night.
It’s not the first time.
Flashes of the fight with Nicole break free as my body pushes through the wind. We fight every day now.
Open your eyes!
The fight had been so fast and furious, I had not processed each word. But I do now.
They are open. I see you clear as day, Nicole.
Not to me. To your own husband!
I can’t see what’s right in front of me. He never comes home for dinner. He pretends to be asleep when I come into our bedroom.
My husband doesn’t love me anymore. My husband loves someone else.
This thought feels old, like a jagged stone I’ve been carrying in my coat pocket, trying to rub it smooth. But no matter how much I dig my fingers in, the edges never soften.
And then, the words I had not heard before, but had felt many times. Still, hearing them from my own daughter twisted the knife.
I hate you!
Tears fall as I run.
Annie. Wispy blond hair resting on delicate shoulders. Big, round eyes and long lashes. I can still feel her in my arms. Her life just beginning. Annie.
And now I know why the thoughts have all come. They have been leading me to this one, last thought. This naked admission.
I am not a good mother because I did not drive four hours to watch my son play football so that he would feel loved. I drove four hours so that I could feel loved.
The log in that fireplace. My daughter’s words. I hate you.
Evan was all that was left. I had to see his face, see him thriving, so I could validate my life.
Gasps of breath. The wind is strong and the air cold. My lungs are on fire.
Maybe Evan knew. Maybe he could sense it seeping from my skin. The need I wanted him to fill which must have felt like poison. A mother shouldn’t need things from her child.
I caused Nicole’s demise. She is certain of it and it now feels real, though disorienting. I went to my son under false pretenses, caused him pain. Caused him to lash out with cruelty. My husband pretends to sleep so he won’t have to look at me.
Yes, I think as the grief spins violently in my head. I am a bad mother. This is an objective fact. There’s no way around it.
I let a child die.
I am at the entrance to the Gas n’ Go. I look up and see there are no cars. No lights on inside the store. Orange cones stand in front of the pumps.
The rain comes suddenly. The blanket covering the sky is now a broken dam. It’s dark but I can still see the writing on a cardboard sign. Closed for storm!
I stop and let the rain wash over me as I stare at these words.
Evan, Nicole, John. I am a burden to them now because they don’t love me. Because they can’t love me.
It’s been five years to this very day that they stopped.
Five years since Annie died.
Five years since she ran into the road.
Five years since I struck her with my car. Since I killed her.
Tears, rain, wind. I walk a few paces to the intersection, to the road, Hastings Pass, that leads to the town. There is nothing but pavement and dirt riding over hills, and the dead cornstalks in fields that go on and on. Not another car in sight.
The hurricane is a category four. That’s what they said on the radio. I remember the voices now. I remember the name of this town. Hastings. I have driven into the eye of the storm. I hear the mantra in my head. Don’t give up. I feel the weight of my guilt like a rock I hold above my head. How I fight to keep it from falling. I think now that maybe it’s time. Maybe I can just let it fall.
Maybe I can just walk away.
These words bring a sudden, jarring euphoria.
Walk away. Just walk away.
The road with the brown cornfields, darkened by the angry storm, is now a thing of beauty. An oasis. An escape. My legs begin to move, pulling my body. My mind is in a trance. Sedated by these words and the promises they offer.
You can leave all of this behind.
You can start again.
You can put down the rock, the burden you carry.
I walk along this road until I am part of the storm. Numb to the wet. Numb to the cold. Numb to the truth about the promises. And for the first time since I killed my child, I am at peace.
Please let me go. Let me walk away. I feel the words in my head like a prayer.
Please, they whisper. Don’t look for me.
I don’t know how long I walk, or how far, when I see light coming from behind. I turn to find headlights moving slowly toward me. They’re high and bright. It’s a truck of some kind. Tall but also long. And in spite of the trance I am in and the peace it has brought, I feel both of my arms rise above my head and wave wildly, the purse still clutched in one hand.
The truck pulls in front of me and comes to a stop.
I walk closer until I am inches beside the passenger window. There are two figures inside.
I make a shield with my hand, just above my eyes to keep the rain from my face. I lean in closer and see the window come down a few inches.
“The storm’s coming, you know—you shouldn’t be out here.” It’s a man’s voice. Friendly. But also urgent. “Do you want a ride to town?”
Another voice calls from the truck. The window comes down a few more inches.
The voice of a little girl. The face of an angel.
“Well? Do you or don’t you?” she asks.
I stare at her, at her blond hair and bright eyes, and beyond her to the man.
I stare at her, this young girl, and, God help me, for a split second I see my dead child.
And then I see this road for what it truly is. A mirage. An illusion. And the words that caused my legs to carry me away from my life—liars. Their promises nothing more than cheap deceptions.
The guilt will never leave me. I will never leave my family.
“Yes,” I say.
The passenger window of the truck closes and the girl disappears. But now I hear the click of the locks opening. I reach for the handle of the door to the second row, desperate to be out of the storm. Desperate to get back to my family. To forget what I have almost done. This storm might have killed me. The wind and the cold. Then the guilt would be theirs to carry. John, Nicole, Evan. How could I be that selfish after everything I’ve already done to them? I will never think of it again.
I climb inside, close the door. Relief fighting with despair.
And before I can clear the rain from my eyes and see what’s really before me, I hear the click again. The doors locking.
Copyright © 2020 by Wendy Walker